The left's Charlie Hebdo dilemma: How to feel about the magazine & its cartoons

With issues of free speech, Islamophobia, racism and barbarism all colliding, liberals now face a complex question

Published January 15, 2015 8:47PM (EST)

Charb, publishing director of Charlie Hebdo, Paris, Sept. 19, 2012.                 (AP/Michel Euler)
Charb, publishing director of Charlie Hebdo, Paris, Sept. 19, 2012. (AP/Michel Euler)

These days, with the advent of the 24-hour, all-saturating, perpetual-motion news cycle, media narratives tend to come in waves. While a vague consensus might initially form around how to interpret an event in the early days after its passing, with the luxury of added time and reflection, another will just as quickly take its place as established orthodoxy. If the modern, digital media has only one calling card, it’s the concentric circles of backlash which tend to flow from any one news story’s initial splash.

So it was with the murder of 12 people at the offices of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which has sent compassionate, thinking people the world over scrambling for an appropriate reaction to such senseless death. The gunmen, who reportedly declared “We have avenged the prophet Muhammad” upon executing the individuals, targeted the magazine because of its defiantly blasphemous portrayals of the prophet Muhammad.

Worldwide reaction was swift. The initial narrative wave stressed solidarity with the magazine and its murdered staff, emphasising the vital importance of unbridled free speech and hailing the magazine for its courageous, take-no-prisoners approach to satire. Almost immediately, protests were organised around the world in support of the principle of free speech, and people around the world declared: “Je suis Charlie.”

It took only a few days for this consensus to be replaced by a different narrative. This new interpretation, gratifyingly, continued to stress the importance of free speech in the face of barbarism. However, as commentators began examining the content of the magazine in greater detail, and those with different points of view brought fresh eyes to the issues raised, there was a significant shift in opinion. While Charlie Hebdo was deemed deserving of the protections offered by our modern notions of free expression, it was no longer considered worthy of our valorization.

According to the new narrative, the magazine, was a racistxenophobic publication that took particular glee in insulting France’s embattled Muslim minority, thereby contributing to the kind of neo-colonial, imperialist mindset that allows everyday racism and travesties like the Iraq War to happen. For some, the magazine’s deliberately provocative and bigoted cartoons were an invitation to violence, and the murdered cartoonists reaped the fruit of their own irresponsibility and prejudice.

Most commentators did not go this far. Nonetheless, at their most generous, the criticisms of Charlie Hebdo affirmed that it was a vile, hateful rag which, just like your garden-variety white supremacist organization or publication, nonetheless merits our support on the principles of free expression, if nothing else. The previously ubiquitous hashtags of #JeSuisCharlie were suddenly replaced by declarations that “I am not Charlie Hebdo”, and torn commentators searched for alternative symbols to cling to in the wake of tragedy, such as Ahmed Merebat, the Muslim police officer killed by the terrorists as they made their getaway.

In the matter of three days, the staff of Charlie Hebdo had transformed from heroic symbols of free expression to the latest in a long line of racists whose right to say what they say we’ll defend to the death, even if we don’t particularly like what they’re saying.

Is Charlie Hebdo racist?

Perhaps the biggest reason why the Charlie Hebdo attack and its resulting fallout has prompted such diverse, even contradictory, reactions is because this is not a clear-cut narrative. I will be the first to say that I am by no means an authority on the magazine. I am neither a French speaker, nor do I have a long history of reading Charlie Hebdo. I, like just about any English speaker who has opined on the magazine and its ideology in the last few days, rely on the snippets of context which have filtered through over the course of this tragedy. However, a few things seem clear.

There is certainly something to the idea that Charlie Hebdo had a tendency toward Islamophobia. For one, it had a habit of trading in some images of Muslims that cleaved dangerously close to racial caricatures from a bygone century, and were certainly embraced by some bigots. One of its more prominent staff members was journalist Caroline Fourest, known, among other things, for declaringMuslims fundamentalism as the worst of all types of fundamentalism and slandering two Muslim victims of racially motivated violence. It also ran a statement in its pages warning that “Islamism” was the “new global totalitarian threat” after Stalinism and Nazism, signed by its editor at the time Philippe Van. According to one of its former staffers, Olivier Cyran, the magazine turned after the September 11 attacks, becoming obsessively focused on Islam and Muslims, and publishing tales of Muslim conspiracies.

Yet at the same time, to declare it an outright “racist institution” is to also grossly oversimplify. The magazine’s defenders are right that the magazine took an equal-opportunity approach to its offensiveness, which was often crude, over the top and deliberately provocative on just about any subject, but particularly bastions of authority like politicians and religious institutions. It was merciless toward French politicians on both the Right and Left, and its founding was rooted in a joke about Charles de Gaulle’s death in 1970. It frequently targeted Christianity, attacking the Pope, featuring a mock debate within its pages about the existence of Jesus, publishing cartoon after cartoon painting Catholic priests as paedophiles, and in one case, printing a graphic cartoon involving the Father, Son and Holy Ghost engaged in a threesome.

The magazine has also been critical of Israel and Judasim. As this Jewish Daily Forward editorial points out, in 2013 slain editor Stephane Charbonnier and 10 other staff members put out a series named “One Commandment A Day: The Torah Illustrated by Charb” (Charbonnier’s nickname), portraying modern Jews supposedly betraying this religious heritage. One of the cartoons, titled “Don’t oppress the weak”, depicts a Jewish man shooting what is clearly meant to be a Palestinian woman in the back, yelling “Here! Take that, Goliath!” The magazine was also known to be critical of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians, who are, we might remember, a predominantly Muslim people. Or see this collage of cartoons offensive to either Israel or Jews more generally.

Charlie Hebdo’s supporters are also right that the magazine has a strong anti-racist pedigree. The magazine had its roots in the May 1968 student protests, and opposition to racism was one of its founding ideals. Admittedly, this may not be saying much, as even Christopher Hitchens ended his life as something of a reactionary crank, cheering on the West’s destructive and wasteful “War on Terror”. But the magazine has continued a steady drumbeat against racism, frequently mocking far right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, including this cartoon which depicts her shaving her pubic hair in the image of Hitler’s mustache, or this one which declares her “the candidate that suits you” over an image of excrement.

Finally, both the magazine’s style and a number of the cartoons being used as evidence of the magazine’s racism need to be viewed in context to be understood. The magazine’s aggressively anti-religious approach has its roots deep in French history, as does its broad, at-times juvenile approach to humor. During the French Revolution, it was common to see crude, pornographic images of political figures like Marie Antoinette being passed around, along with cartoons like this one, portraying the National Assembly as a collection of bare asses shitting on the kings of European nations and the Pope.

Furthermore, some of the cartoons being used as examples of the magazine’s supposedly overt racism are actually the exact opposite when understood in context. This cartoon of France’s black justice minister Christina Taubira certainly seems like a gross, racist depiction of a public figure, and that’s certainly how it has been interpreted by many. But the cartoon is in fact an attack on Le Pen’s National Front, labelling them racists after a party member compared Taubira to a monkey.

Meanwhile, this image of Boko Haram’s sex slaves as welfare queens has also been passed around as an example of the magazine’s beyond-the-pale racial sensibilities. But as some have pointed out, it’s a deliberately absurd image meant to parody the very idea of ‘welfare queens’ that was being espoused by the French Right. Interpreting these particular cartoons as racist is much like the misguided reaction which followed the famous New Yorker cover of 2008 featuring then-candidate Obama and his wife as militant, Muslim terrorists, poking fun at the absurdity of right-wing conspiracies surrounding the couple at the time.

What is surprising is that virtually none of the commentators who have declared the magazine a mouthpiece for racism have bothered to examine the evidence or the context of the cartoons before dismissing it. One even seemingly proudly declared that “I’ve never read the thing and am quite content that my limited grasp of French culture and language means I’ll never understand why so many people suddenly think it the height of subversive literature”, after deeming it racist. Yet all of the above is surely essential context before judging the magazine bigoted, hateful publication as it so widely has been.

Is the story of Charlie Hebdo that of a racist publication cloaking itself in free speech to exclusively pick on an embattled minority, or that of a left-wing defender that never put a foot wrong? Perhaps neither is the answer. Could it instead be that the magazine, despite its unabashedly left-wing views, fell at least partly prey to the same kind of post-September 11 Islamophobia that other Western liberal figures like Christopher Hitchens or Bill Maher became fully submerged in? And can it be that despite this fact, we can still see something noble in the magazine’s fight to lampoon anything it wished in whatever style it wanted?

Offense and racism

Regardless of the racial politics of the magazine, it’s important to remember this is not why the magazine has been attacked. The terrorists who firebombed the Charlie Hebdo offices in 2011 and massacred its staff last week didn’t do so out of resentment at its at-times crude-portrayals of ordinary Muslims or association with Islamophobes; they were doing so specifically because of its depictions of Muhammad.

Yet some would have it that even these cartoons cross the line onto irredeemable, racist speech. Rather than citing any particular racist feature of the cartoons, these critics consider the cartoons inherently racist solely by virtue of their offensiveness to the Muslim faith, as under some interpretations of Islam any and all pictorial representations of the Prophet are considered blasphemous. By this logic, the offense produced by, not the actual content of, a piece of satire is the ultimate determinant of merit – an ethos that would deem reason and good sense less important than misinterpretation.

Taking a closer look at the cartoons and the context behind them, is crucial, because nearly all – even the magazine’s most provocative, disrespectful images – were political statements in reaction to specific events. In fact, some weren’t even disrespectful of Muhammad. The 2006 cover, part of the same issue which republished the 12 Danish cartoons that had inspired global violence, depicted a tearful Muhammad covering his eyes and lamenting that “It’s hard to be loved by jerks.” This cover is, if anything, a defence of Islam, criticising violent extremists for betraying the peaceful tenets of their faith. In fact, even the French Muslim organizations which took the magazine to court in 2007 on charges of inciting racism did not criticise this particular drawing, singling out instead two of the Danish cartoons it reprinted. A more recent cartoon, depicting Muhammad being beheaded by a member of ISIS, makes a similar point.

The magazine has also sought to deliberately offend with its portrayals. In 2011, it planned a special “Charia Hebdo” issue “guest edited” by Muhammad, portrayed as a goofy-looking Middle Eastern caricature telling readers: “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!” The magazine was firebombed and had its website hacked in response. In 2012, it printed several more, extremely crass, cartoons of Muhammad in the same style, including one featuring the prophet lying naked on his stomach, asking a photographer: “And my ass? Do you like my ass?” (In an added layer of meaning, the image is a parody of a scene from the movie Contempt starring Bridgette Bardot, who has morphed into a prolific Islamophobe herself in recent years).

These cartoons can certainly be viewed as tasteless attacks on Islam. But they should be understood in the context of the aftermath of the Danish cartoon controversy. The magazine appeared to deliberately be pushing the boundaries of good taste and acceptable speech by being as irreverent and disrespectful as possible –  inherently a political statement in a world where even inoffensive portrayals of a subject are deemed by extremists to be justifications for violence. This is particularly the case with the 2012 cartoons, which were a direct response to the violent protests against the moronic and gross “Innocence of Muslims” film.

The inconsistency and importance of irreverence

One of the notable things about this re-evaluation of Charlie Hebdo and its criticisms of Islam is how it compares to other free speech controversies. Many on the Left would not express any dismay over Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine which continues to draw the ire of Christian protesters. Likewise, there was no similar condemnation of South Park’s infamous “Bloody Mary” episode, which portrayed a statue of the Virgin Mary bleeding from its anus, and drew the ire of Catholic groups around the world. Ditto for any of the other countless times South Park has poked fun at Christianity, or other assorted taboo subjects for that matter. We apply our outrage inconsistently.

This is because committing offense to Christianity and its institutions has become routine and normalised in Western culture, as brilliantly satirised by South Park in its “Cartoon Wars Part II” episode. While an inoffensive clip of Muhammad drinking lemonade was censored by Comedy Central for fear of violent reprisal, the following scene depicting Jesus, George Bush and others defecating on each other and an American flag was allowed to run freely.

The ability to criticise and satirise Christianity is doubtless a good thing, and one that is so ubiquitous that we take it for granted. People freely criticise the beliefs or Christians or even joke about them both in public and private, and many of us would balk at the idea of censoring books, films or television because the characters they featured, for example, took God’s name in vain. But this wasn’t always the case. Our ability to do any of these things has been hard earned over many years. Centuries ago, to challenge the authority of the Church could get you imprisoned, tortured or killed. Today, it doesn’t raise an eyebrow.

The ability to offend and push boundaries has always been critical to democracy. It wasn’t that long ago that one could be arrested or tried for what we might consider trivial or bizarre today, including giving out information on birth control and safe sex. It’s why we’ve made heroes out of figures like Lenny Bruce, who challenged social norms by using language and discussing topics (like abortion) that at the time were considered indecent and forbidden, or Larry Flynt, who despite being just a “smut-peddler” nonetheless helped expand our notions (and legal definitions) of what is acceptable speech. Today, we (or at least most people on the Left) accept without thinking that burning or desecrating a national flag is not an offense worthy of arrest, despite the fact that national symbols are just as sacred to some as religious beliefs to others.

Many of those on the other side of the debate would argue that these instances involve rebellion against the dominant cultural power rather than a marginalised one. Charlie Hebdo may have been an equal-opportunity offender, but attacking Christianity and attacking Islam – particularly in the West, where Muslims are a vulnerable minority – are altogether different things. There is a power imbalance involved when privileged, white Westerners attack the latter in a country where they are the ruling class and Muslims the underclass. In a cartoon for the Guardian, Joe Sacco asked us, over an image ripped from Abu Ghraib, to think about “what it is about Muslims in this time and place that makes them unable to laugh off a mere image.”

However, it’s clear the scope of Charlie Hebdo’s satire aimed beyond simply France and the West. It was also aimed at Islamic fundamentalism more generally, an ideology that, in a number of countries, uses religion as a pretext to oppress women, homosexuals and other minorities, as well as silence political activists fighting for basic rights.

Blasphemy and the charge of offense are useful tools in the latter task. In Saudi Arabia, liberal blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced last year to a decade in prison and 1000 lashes for supposedly blaspheming and insulting religious authorities. At the same time that some commentators charged Charlie Hebdo with inviting the attacks it received for their satirical work, Badawi received 50 of those 1000 lashes in a public display of cruelty. One of his colleagues is being detained in relation to tweets she sent criticising religious authorities, all on the charges of supposedly insulting Muhammad. This is what Charbonnier meant when he said: “When you start saying that you can’t create such drawings, then the same thing will soon apply to other, more harmless representations.”

In any case, part of what’s problematic with the idea that Muslims need special protection from being offended because they’re unable to “laugh off” certain images is that Muslims aren’t the issue. Every day, Muslims around the world see a variety of offensive imagery and words directed at them as a group. It’s safe to say that just about any French Muslim is well aware of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. Most were almost certainly offended by them, for a variety of reasons. Some likely opted to pour their feelings out by talking to a friend or neighbor. Others perhaps went further and wrote angry letters to the editor. Others still may have decided to organise boycotts or protests. Only three decided they would commit murder.

Muslims aren’t the problem – violent extremists are. It’s the same difference as that between law-abiding Christian conservatives who oppose abortion, and fanatics who decide to bomb abortion clinics. To not recognise this difference is ironically to adopt the same view as right-wing bigots who see all Muslims as marauding terrorists.

The dilemma for decent people

Despite the strident tone of this article, the question of what exactly to feel about Charlie Hebdo and its cartoons – let alone the extent to which free expression comes into it – is a complex one. It’s also useful to point out here that these debates are almost solely confined to the Left (along with libertarian circles). When the conservative Right looked at this incident, it saw what it had suspected – or rather, known – all along: that these murderers represent all Muslims, who are subverting Western society from within and are therefore deserving of further subjugation. For the Left, however, it has clearly prompted something of a division in ranks.

The issue over Charlie Hebdos cartoons puts into direct conflict two of the great ideas which animate 20th century liberalism. On the one hand, there’s the Left’s commitment to civil liberties, first codified in documents like the Magna Carta, the United States Constitution, and France’s own Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and more fully forged in the waves of repression experienced during the early Twentieth Century.

The Left has drawn on this history to defend everything from accused Communists’ rights to work and publish, to individuals’ rights to create obscene or critical works of art. This task has often involved the rejection or defiance of outside authority, particularly religious authority. In order to publish books which challenged social mores, show films which dealt with adult subjects, or expand our ability to openly discuss taboos like sex, rights defenders have often come up against the heavy hand of religious institutions.

On the other hand, you have the values of pluralism and tolerance, which argue that people of all different ethnicities, races, cultures and beliefs can live together harmoniously. All that’s needed is toleration and respect of other people’s differences, and the ability to recognise that a culture which does things differently is not necessarily one that does those same things wrong. If the Western world today is a kinder, more welcoming place for people of diverse backgrounds – and if flippant, casual racist remarks and beliefs are less common and vastly more frowned upon – it’s because these values have somewhat triumphed over the course of many decades.

All of this is to say that, for decent, tolerant, secular and liberal people, certain subjects require a tricky reconciliation of these values – and broaching these same topics can be a potential minefield. Such is the case with Islam. Criticism of Islam, has historically gone, and to a large extent continues to go, hand in hand with bigotry. In just about any case where Islam or its adherents are lambasted, the sources tend to be narrow-minded racists who know little to nothing of the actual religion. Often, those on the Left are the ones defending Muslims or their beliefs from ignorant misinterpretations, reflexively – and justifiably – feeling the need to defend a minority from attacks.

Not only that, in the West at least, Muslims continue to be an embattled and vulnerable minority who are treated with aggression and hostility. They are kidnappedspied on, have their places of worship burned to the ground, not to mention face the small, daily acts of prejudice that make life that little bit harder. Not only this, but politicians fan the flame of intolerance by concocting outlandish tales of Muslim sleeper agents and conspiracies. This is particularly the case in France where, as others have pointed out, Muslims make up a disproportionate amount of the prison population and Muslim women are banned from wearing the full face veil. If irreverent portrayals of Muslims and their faith don’t hurt Muslim minorities, they certainly don’t help them either.

The principle of secularism is key to democracy, yet can also be used as a weapon against the marginalised. So can the value of free speech. And as important as it is to criticise, question and even satirise Islam, as it is for all religions, these are also acts that are inextricably associated with bigotry, regardless of their original intent. How then do we proceed from here?

Regardless of the true nature of Charlie Hebdo’s racial politics, we can certainly distinguish between its cartoons lampooning ordinary Muslims, and those which stand as a political statement defiantly declaring that even Islam is a topic that is not above satire or reproach. And while we may not necessarily join in or adopt this same take-no-prisoners approach in our personal lives, we can recognise that this is nonetheless one of the vital mechanisms for the functioning of a free society.

We can also try and avoid getting caught up in easy narratives, and look at the wider context. Although it may seem impossible in today’s world to hold off from instant, kneejerk reactions, it may be our only way of navigating through thorny subjects – and avoiding saying something we regret.

By Branko Marcetic

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Charlie Hebdo Civil Liberties France Free Speech Islamophobia Magazines Muslims Racism Satire Shootings Terrorism